Since 2008, a small group of citizens in southern West Virginia has been fighting the coal industry on an unlikely front: their family cemetery. Alpha Natural Resources, a publicly-traded coal extraction company, is currently engaged in mountaintop removal mining on a massive scale in Boone County, West Virginia. At the crest of a small hillock within the mining area is a small cemetery. This cemetery has been used by the Jarrell family, along with other members of their now-defunct community of Lindytown, since the late 1800s.
Some members of the Jarrell family and their allies (including local environmental activists) recently sued Alpha, alleging that it violated an agreement to keep mining at least 100 feet away from the cemetery. They note evidence of mining within the cemetery boundary, including several toppled headstones.
In addition to their claim of desecration, the plaintiffs are also asserting a right to better access to the cemetery. Currently, to reach the cemetery one must send notice to Alpha 10 days in advance, sit through a 30 minute safety course, surrender all cell phones and cameras, and be escorted by an Alpha employee up a dirt track that is only accessible to four-wheel drive vehicles. The plaintiffs argue that this effectively deprives them of their ability to visit the cemetery – and to bury their dead at the cemetery in the future.
The Jarrell’s claim raises an interesting question about the definition of “access” to a cemetery. Is mere physical access (no matter how onerous) enough? Or are the visitors entitled to access that could reasonably accommodate a dignified funeral at the cemetery? The ultimate outcome of the case may also determine the fate of other “mine-bound” cemeteries in the mountains of West Virginia, of which there are believed to be many.
Incidentally, this is not the first case arising out of southern West Virginia in which historic resources are raised as a shield against strip mining. A few years ago, a group of West Virginians unsuccessfully sued the Secretary of the Interior for refusing to place Blair Mountain (the site of a 1921 battle between unionized coal miners and state authorities) on the National Register of Historic Places. National Register status would have protected the mountain from strip-mining by Massey Energy (Alpha’s predecessor) and Arch Coal, who held coal leases on the mountain and vehemently opposed listing the property on the Register. Blair Mountain is located about 30 miles from the Jarrell family cemetery.